Thank Colonial Britain for These 7 Present Day Crises in the World

The sun might have set on the formidable British empire, but not on the conflicts it’s left behind.

6 min read
Thank Colonial Britain for These 7 Present Day Crises in the World

The sun might have set on the formidable British empire, but not on its legacy.

Many of the present day conflicts around the world have deep-seated links with British colonial polices, their mismanagement of the process of independence, and the legacy they left behind in law, by drawing up unviable borders and by migrating cheap labour from one colony to the other.

Shashi Tharoor’s book, ‘An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India’, scheduled to release next month, is expected to talk about the colonial looting of India.

But while it’s up to these erstwhile colonies now to resolve matters on their own and the blame cannot forever lie with the British, in many situations the roots of the conflict lie in imperialism.

Here’s a list of 7 present day conflicts around the world triggered and often exacerbated by the English colonisers.


1. No Country for Rohingyas

Discriminated against for years, the Rohingyas of Myanmar have been classified by the United Nations as one of the ‘most persecuted refugee groups in the world’.

But their origin in fact has been disputed since the British conquest of Arakan – present day Rakhine in western Myanmar – where most Rohingyas live. From 1825 up till 1948, when Myanmar (then Burma) won independence from the British, thousands of Bengalis (or “Chittagonians”) from undivided India arrived at Arakan, to work and boost the colonial economy.

The Muslim minority in a Buddhist-dominated country, the Myanmar government considers the nearly one million strong Rohingya population illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who are often pejoratively called “Bengalis”.

Stateless, persecuted and isolated, the Rohingyas today can claim citizenship neither in Myanmar nor in Bangladesh.

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar being transported by a wooden boat to a temporary shelter in Krueng Raya in Indonesia. (Photo: Reuters)

2. Israel-Palestine and the Balfour Declaration

The formation of the Jewish state of Israel in the middle-east is a direct result of Britain’s infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917.

In a letter to Baron Rothschild, a leader of the Zionist movement, Britain’s then Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour declared that his government “would use its best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object (of establishing a national home for Jewish people in Palestine)“.

As late British author and journalist Arthur Koestler said of the bargain: "One nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third."

The declaration was a complete turnaround on Britain’s earlier promise of liberation for the Arabs if they rose up against the Ottoman empire.

It was implemented by the British mandate of 1920 in Palestine that resulted in the creation of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent displacement of Palestinians.

Though several British MPs have voted in favour of recognising a Palestinian state, the country is far from atoning for its actions.

A man upholds the Palestinian flag among destruction in the Gaza strip. (Photo: Reuters)

3. Pakistan-Afghanistan and the Disputed Durand Line

The controversial Durand Line, Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan is a colonial legacy that has shaped Afghanistan’s foreign policy with Pakistan for decades.

The line – hastily drawn by the British for the fear of the Russian Empire coming closer to British India via Afghanistan – arbitrarily divides the Pashtun tribal lands into either sides of the border.

In 1893, the British sought control of the strategic Khyber Pass, and a British diplomat, Mortimer Durand, was sent over to the Emirate of Afghanistan to negotiate a border.

The resulting Durand Line also took away the province of Baluchistan, Afghanistan’s strategic access to the Arabian Sea.

The agreement was apparently only a page long, and was drawn up in English, with copies in Daro and Pashto. Though the Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman Khan could neither read nor understand English, Durand decided that would be the definitive copy.

Subsequent Afghan governments have reaffirmed the colonial-era border under British pressure. The Pakistan government’s recent insistence on sending the mostly Afghani Pashtun refugees back has exacerbated tensions between the two countries.

Afghani Pashtun refugee children at the UNHCR registration centre in Kabul. (Photo: Reuters)

4. The Cyprus Dispute

The dispute over the island of Cyprus on the Mediterranean has been a four-decade-long conflict between Greece and Turkey.

The Cyprus Convention of 1878 between Britain and Turkey made Cyprus a British protectorate – administered by Britain but remaining under Turkish sovereignty – to protect this Ottoman jewel from Russia.

In 1914, however, when Britain and Turkey became adversaries in World War I, Britain formally colonised Cyprus. British occupation was at first celebrated by the Greek Cypriots, who expected the coloniser to transfer Cyprus to Greece.

Britain’s retreat from Cyprus, however, was amidst growing tension between Greece and Turkey over their respective claims on the island.

In 1955, British governor, John Harding offered Greek-Cypriot community leader, Archbishop Makarios the right to self-determination after seven years.

Reaching a dead-end in negotiations, the British began to stoke Turkish interests in Cyprus.

The island was given independence in 1960 with a power-sharing arrangement, which installed Makarios as president and a Turkish-Cypriot as vice-president. From the outset, however, the arrangement was fragile and within three years of independence, the system broke down. In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus.

Turkish Cypriots chase Greek Cypriots during the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus. (Photo: Reuters)

5. Indian Communalism and the Policy of Divide and Rule

While India continues to grapple with communal tensions, several schools of historians argue that Indian communalism has roots in the pre-Independence era, actively aided and abetted by the British Raj.

According to historian Bipan Chandra, communal politics has been organised around government jobs and educational concessions which can provide easier access to economic opportunities. By favouring certain communities over others, the British encouraged communalism to quell popular struggles.

Even in the way the Raj designed the census, identity questions like “Are you a Hindu or a Muslim?” polarised the communities. The policy of divide and rule was actively applied in the re-organisation of the Indian Army after the mutiny of 1857.
Rioters burn effigies in during clashes in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. (Photo: Reuters)

6. North Borneo and the Interpretation of 'Pajak'

The North Borneo dispute between Malaysia and Philippines is over the state of Sabah. The territorial dispute pre-dates to the time the British North Borneo Chartered Company operated in the area.

The Philippines assert a territorial claim over much of eastern Sabah as the Filipinos maintain that the territory belonged to and continues to belong to the Sultanate of Sulu.

At the heart of the disagreement between Malaysia and the Philippines is a contract made in 1878 between the Sultanate of Sulu and the British North Borneo Company.

Under the contract, known as pajak, the British could occupy Sabah as long as it paid a regular sum of money. But the British, and subsequently an independent Malaysia interpreted the contract to mean sale, while the Sulu Sultanate continues to maintain it means lease.

The issue between the two erstwhile imperial colonies is still a factor behind growing violence and instability on the islands of Sulu.

Followers of the Sultan of Sulu stand in front of a banner for liberation of Sabah. (Photo: Reuters)

7. India, China and the McMahon ‘Lie’

The McMahon Line that designates the border between India and China has for decades been a bone of contention between the two neighbours. The line was allegedly agreed upon during the Simla Conference organised by Sir Henry McMahon, the then Foreign Secretary of British India.

Revisionist findings by academic Karunakar Gupta, however, suggests that the line was never actually agreed upon.

At the conference, called by McMahon to settle the border dispute between India and China, only the China-Tibet border was discussed. The Tibetan and Indian representatives signed the agreement. China, who considers Tibet its territory, did not.

In 1929, the 14th volume of the Aitchison’s Treaties – which compiled all the treaties and agreements executed in imperial India – showed that the Simla Conference had only been about China and Tibet and not any McMahon line.

Olaf Caroe, the then deputy secretary, went ahead and ordered the destruction of the 1929 volume. Instead, he released a forged volume with the same date that said Britain recognised Chinese suzerainty over Tibet and the border between Tibet and India was fixed along the McMahon Line.

With the original documents destroyed, this became the accepted truth for the Nehru and the governments that came after.

A man walks inside a conference room used for meetings between military commanders of China and India, at the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla, Arunachal Pradesh. (Photo: Reuters)

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